Sir Gawain and the Green Knight by Simon Armitage (review)
- Comitatus: A Journal of Medieval and Renaissance Studies
- University of California, Los Angeles, Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies
- Volume 39, 2008
- pp. 322-324
- Additional Information
REVIEWS 322 Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, trans. Simon Armitage (London: Faber and Faber 2007) 114 pp. Not the perched, anthracite, anvil form of a jackdaw, rook or carrion crow on a sycamore branch, but the limp, snagged, wind-shredded flag of a carrier bag on an overhead wire in wasteland beyond. –Simon Armitage, “RSPB Big Garden Birdwatch, 29–30 January 2005” And alle þat loked on þat letter as lewed þay were As þay had loked in þe leþer of my lyft bote. –Gawin-poet, Cleanness, lines 1580–1581 The second quote epitomizes the Gawain-poet’s unusual style and sense of humor. Here he (presuming the Gawain-poet was a “he”) slyly mocks these socalled wise men for being lewd while simultaneously employing his own lewed idiom. These lines, both of which alliterate on l-sounds and which favor AngloSaxon sounds over Latin or French words and physical images over abstract ones, show the Gawain-poet’s peerless alliteration, not merely matching starting -sounds but creating tension and parallel between the vowel sounds, balancing letter with leþer, repeating loked in the same position, finding a punchline in lyft. This is a poet highly aware of his background as a northern poet writing for a sophisticated, and most likely, an urban and courtly audience. He is inspired by romances but continually uses lower and rougher language when more courtly language might be appropriate. He creates protagonists who come from the courtly and urban world of his audience and thrusts them into wild, rough-hewn worlds where their courtly language, and chivalric identities, are threatened. In short, this is a poet who continually “translates” his provincial northern background into romance for the enjoyment of an ostensibly more refined audience. Anglo-Saxon language is more than mere word-choice: since the Conquest, it represents a sort of moral choice for a poet, favoring action and resisting abstraction. It proves the solidness of the world around us and our own frailty. In preferring these archaic sounds, the Gawain-poet has a companion in Simon Armitage, author of the five-line poem printed above. This poem, between doggerel rhyme and alliteration and its two parallel phrases beginning “Not” and “but,” is a fine demonstration of Armitage’s onomatopoeic and AngloSaxon idiom. But here we see him refuting the hard physical world of rooks and crows; Armitage’s rooks live in a manmade enclosure, and the “wasteland beyond” is an abstraction from a poet yearning for more primal things of life but unwittingly obsessed by the “carrier bag” in the tree. In Armitage’s recent translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight [henceforth, Gawain], he seems a fit translator for this poet, perhaps the most difficult Middle English author to read in the original. Gawain, however, is one of the great achievements of medieval literature and deserves its wide and appreciative audience. One translation has set the standard for decades: Marie Borroff’s of 1968. Borroff’s has long been the choice for anthologies and undergraduate courses and rightfully so: it is a marvel of close philological faithfulness , carefully reproducing the poem’s formal splendor. Borroff manages the alliterative verse, as well as the prosody of the five-line bob-and-wheel that REVIEWS 323 ends each stanza. At the end of the second stanza, Borroff translates the poet’s invitation to the audience with these majestic and rolling lines: If you will listen to my lay but a little while, As I heard it in hall, I shall hasten to tell anew, As it was fashioned featly In tale of derring-do, And linked in measures meetly By letters tried and true. (lines 30–36) Listen to how close Borroff’s word-order from the first two lines is to the original text, and how similar in meter her bob-and-wheel is to the original: If 1e wyl listen þis laye bot on little quile, I schal telle hit astit, as I in toun herde, With tonge. As hit is stad and stoken In stori stif and stronge, With lel letteres loken, In londe so hatz ben longe. Borroff has to fudge line 31 a bit, reversing the...